The declaration came emphatically, out of nowhere — dropped between sudsing his hair and rinsing out the shampoo with a plastic yellow duck full of water. "I'm not black," my then 4-year-old son announced, while playing with his superhero figurines in the tub.
I assured him that not only was he black, because his daddy is black, but that he was also Chinese, like me. He wrinkled his nose and shook his head at this reality check. I was just as confused — where was all this coming from?
“If you’re not black and you’re not Chinese, what are you?” I asked, hoping he would not say “white.”
“I’m just Langston,” he answered.
Just Langston. My husband, Gerald, and I were inspired to name our son in honor of Langston Hughes while having lunch at Busboys and Poets immediately after learning we were having a boy. The restaurant's name honors Hughes, who had worked as a busboy in a Washington hotel before he became a famous poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
We wanted our child to have a strong appreciation of his cultural roots, and a name that reflected his heritage and our hopes for him. To me, a reporter who now writes about race for The Washington Post, and Gerald, a former high school history teacher, the name Langston was perfect. That afternoon, we bought two anthologies of Langston Hughes’s poetry — one for adults, one for children — from the restaurant’s companion bookstore and grew giddy anticipating all we would teach him.
But after Langston questioned his identity, even innocently, in the bathtub last year, we began to wonder if we were fulfilling our duty as parents in guiding him to understand — and like — who he is. What did the world around him convey about what it means to be black? What messages was he receiving during the day at preschool? We did not want our influence to be merely supplemental. And so, even though we’d decided to have him start kindergarten this year at our neighborhood elementary school, one of the most sought-after in the city, we recently began researching educational alternatives for the future — including the idea of home schooling.
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, where kids on TV would routinely declare "I'm proud to be a Chinese American!" in the 1980s public service announcements that interrupted my cartoons. Gerald grew up in Memphis and Baltimore, living in black neighborhoods and attending black public schools. Now we live in Adams Morgan, which is only diverse in the sense that it's in D.C. and draws families from a number of countries. Multiple languages — French, Italian and Spanish, occasionally Chinese — can routinely be heard at the Kalorama Park playground. But the neighborhood is predominantly white.
Langston has denied being teased or bullied for the honey-brown color of his skin. But he does not live in a colorblind society — and somehow, before entering kindergarten, he had absorbed the racial anxieties of the world around him.
One evening, Langston asked me if I would call the police on him because he accidentally got crayon on the couch. Before I could reassure him that I most certainly would not, he asked if the police were going to come and shoot him. I would like to have told him that the police would protect him, that they don’t shoot good people, that they don’t shoot kids. But I would have been wrong. Month after month, killings of unarmed black people, including black boys, make the news, which he overhears in our tiny condo. How could I blame a boy for not identifying as black when even a child can see that being black in America can get you killed?
As he entered kindergarten as a 5-year-old in August, I wondered what he would learn about the flag, about our country's history, about the Founding Fathers. I doubted that the public schools, even in progressive D.C., would keep it real. As a former education reporter, I know that history often gets short shrift in schools under pressure to keep math and reading scores up. That not all parents want their children knowing the inconvenient truth about our country's racist founding, for fear it pierces the mythology of America as a meritocracy. That widely used history textbooks are riddled with lies, like the South seceding from the Union over states' rights — not slavery — during the Civil War.
In addition to worrying about the Eurocentric bias in most schools' history curriculums, I do not want our son to fall victim to teacher biases. African American boys, beginning in preschool, are disproportionately identified as having behavioral problems and suspended, in D.C. Public Schools and across the nation. They are also more likely to be referred to special education and passed over for advanced programs.
Gerald and I want Langston to know where he comes from — so that he can take pride in his culture, his people, his identity. We want him to appreciate that the history of black people does not begin at slavery and end after the civil rights era. We want his Chinese American influences to be more than just a footnote to a largely white and black narrative, more than a mention of Lunar New Year every winter. Home schooling, we thought, could be the answer to many of these concerns.
While some may dismiss home schooling as the province of hippies or social misfits, I have been curious about it ever since meeting the Carsons, an evangelical Christian family in Iowa whom I'd written about in 2011 while pregnant and covering presidential politics for the Boston Globe. I reconnected with the family early in the 2016 presidential cycle, when Langston was a toddler. Once again, the parents and their four children, then ages 14 to 21, piled into their beige Ford Econoline to attend rallies for every candidate, even Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It was all a part of the children's home schooling. They were more educated about civics and the candidates' platforms than most Americans.
The concept of schooling as parents see fit — freed from the constraints of bureaucracy and school board politics — appealed to me. So did the tight bonds that I saw develop when parents become not only provider and disciplinarian, but also teacher.
In different ways, Gerald and I, too, benefited from family involvement in our education. My own parents were Taiwanese immigrants who spoke Mandarin Chinese at home. While they were not fluent in English, my mother practiced reading Dick and Jane work sheets with me when I struggled to learn to read in kindergarten. My father, an engineer, tutored me in math and sciences throughout high school. They sacrificed to send me to a top private prep school, where a plethora of electives such as East Asian and African studies along with art and music history were taught, options that I want my son to have as well.
Gerald grew up in a family of public school teachers; his grandmother and aunt taught him how to read by the time he entered kindergarten in Memphis. His grandfather, a Veterans Administration nurse who worked the night shift, lived two doors down, giving him the opportunity to impart his broad knowledge about history, jazz and gardening. Gerald moved to Baltimore for middle school after his father, a bottling supervisor for Seagram’s, was transferred there. He attended a predominantly black high school, where expectations were so low that when he sought to apply to Brown University, his guidance counselor suggested community college instead. Gerald ultimately graduated from Brown with degrees in history and African American studies.
Of course, neither of us was home-schooled, and we weren’t sure how it worked. But in many ways, the District makes it easy: Parents simply need to submit a one-page form to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. They also are required to keep a portfolio of instruction in language arts, math, science, social studies, art, music, health and physical education — in the event the superintendent’s office chooses to review it.
The number of home-schooled students in the city has doubled to roughly 400 since the office began tracking the data in 2008. D.C. does not break the numbers down by race, but, nationally, black home schooling has been on the rise. The number of African American children who are home-schooled grew by roughly 10 percent, to more than 200,000, between 2012 and 2016, according to an estimate by the National Home Education Research Institute.
We were especially interested in connecting with black parents who have chosen to home-school. I reached out to an old college friend from Stanford, DeLise Bernard, a former policy staffer for a previous D.C. mayor, and her husband, Rahsaan, executive director of THEARC, a nonprofit in Southeast Washington that provides educational, cultural and social service programs. The couple had decided to home-school their three children because, as Rahsaan puts it, “we refuse to allow the prevailing culture to determine ours.” They wanted to exert maximum influence over their children’s character development, grounded in their Christian faith, teaching them to deeply love their fellow human beings. “Every single negative thing in the news is a love deficit,” Rahsaan says, “and I don’t want my children to add to those stories.”
For years I had followed DeLise’s Facebook posts, intrigued by how her children, now ages 10, 7 and 5, were simultaneously being taught black history and culture while learning art and science — whether it’s through examining Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” at the Phillips Collection or an African heritage cooking class imparting the importance of nutrition. We decided we had to see it for ourselves.
The first thing we needed to know about home schooling, DeLise told us, is that very little of the school day actually occurs at home. "We call it 'roam schooling,' " she says. Washington's bounty of mostly free cultural and educational resources, such as the Smithsonian museums, makes the city an ideal "classroom." Many sites even offer classes during the week, such as the U.S. Botanic Garden's plant science program for children age 3 and older.
Mondays, DeLise’s children travel to math and science classes taught by black scientists. Tuesdays, they have physics, engineering, piano and soccer. Wednesdays, they go to art, a book club with other home-schooled children, and choir at church. Thursdays, they have gymnastics and chess. Fridays, they attend a co-op for black home-schoolers to learn pan-African history, world geography and dramatic arts. Sprinkled throughout the week are creative writing, grammar, Spanish, Mandarin and Latin.
At their sprawling home in suburban Maryland, an office has been converted into a classroom. Several chalkboard placards display notes on different topics, including the definition of an infinitive, the four types of tissue, and capital cities in New England. Portraits of influential black figures, from abolitionists to actors, line the top of a wall.
Days after visiting with DeLise and Rahsaan, Gerald and I tagged along with their children to the Sankofa Homeschool Community — housed in a row of storefronts at the Adinkra Cultural Arts Studio in Mount Rainier, Md., just over the D.C. border. The African-centered collective offers an array of classes — from South African storytelling and African drumming to psychology and Mandarin Chinese — to about 50 families every Friday.
Founded in 2004 by Monica Utsey and other home-schooling mothers, Sankofa emerged as a resource for families who want to give their children a solid grounding in African history and culture. The collective hires its own teachers, often college professors, and charges $75 per class per child for a semester. The curriculum is not religion-based, and draws families of various faiths, including Christians, Muslims and Black Hebrew Israelites, as well as those who don’t follow any religion.
“I didn’t intend to home-school,” Utsey said. In fact, until her eldest son, Zion, turned 6, she read to him only books that featured brown characters, such as African folk tales, because she expected to eventually send him to school, “where his reflection would be nonexistent.” She was hoping “to fill him up on everything good about Africa and about being black before he learned about how we were slaves,” she said. But she decided to home-school her two sons after visiting a slew of private and public schools that lacked diversity in either the student body or the curriculum. So Utsey started Sankofa. And Zion, now 17, is in his final year before he plans to head to college. An aspiring engineer, he is already taking college courses for credit at the University of the District of Columbia.
Zion says he’s benefited greatly from the flexibility home schooling offers because he’s been able to hone his interests, whether it’s through a transportation engineering program at Howard University, performing in a West African drumming company, or playing on travel basketball and soccer teams. “A lot of people have stereotypes of home-schoolers as non-sociable, that they are in their homes all day just in their pajamas doing work,” Zion says. “I was always involved in other programs and around other kids, so I never felt I was missing anything.”
The teenager says the experience has also helped him develop a closer relationship with his mother, who served as his guide, if not instructor, throughout his education. And he says Sankofa makes him feel good about himself. “Once you understand your history,” he notes, “you’re not able to be brainwashed.”
During our visit, DeLise’s daughters learned to pronounce the capital of Ghana and colored the country’s flag red, yellow and green in a basement classroom at Sankofa. Meanwhile, her son sat upstairs in a writing class for older children about the life of abolitionist and onetime slave Frederick Douglass. The teacher, Bomani Armah, engaged the class in a discussion about why Douglass did not know his age — because slaves, considered property, were not told their birthdays. Armah quizzed them on the meaning of words and phrases like “authentic,” “odiousness” and “to blunt natural affection for your mother.” Then he paraphrased Douglass: “A man who can read is unfit to be a slave,” he said. “If you have an imagination, it’s going to be hard to keep you in your place.”
Armah, an audio engineer, musician and poet, is a self-described "arts integration specialist" who teaches English through hip-hop songwriting at area schools. He decided to home-school his twin boys after he popped in on their first-grade class to find the teacher sharing the peppy — and historically inaccurate — poem about Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492.
“I’m not afraid of my children being exposed to everyone else and hearing opposing ideas,” Armah says. “I’m not afraid of my children being okay in public schools. But my goal is for them to be more than okay.” I identified with that sentiment — and came away from our visit to Sankofa even more drawn to the idea of home schooling.
Gerald and I are certainly mindful of the implications of middle- and upper-middle-class families of color abandoning the public schools. Home schooling is not an option that's practical, or even financially feasible, for all families, because it frequently requires one parent — in our case it would be Gerald — to stay at home. The decision is especially fraught for black families, given the hard-won, often violent battle of integrating public schools.
In an ideal world, public schools are supposed to bring children from diverse backgrounds together, and critics argue that home schooling only serves to further balkanize society. But my experiences as a reporter have shown me that public schools in this country largely reflect communities already segregated by race, income and political perspectives.
As Langston settles into his new kindergarten in what’s considered one of the District’s best Spanish bilingual schools, we are comfortable knowing that we have options if we ever grow unhappy with the education he’s receiving. We are grateful to have discovered a community of families on similar journeys and a panoply of resources to help us supplement his schooling. And, after meeting families who have dipped in and out of home schooling throughout their children’s education, we realize our choices for Langston can shift over time.
I think about the meaning of Sankofa, a word from the Akan tribe in Ghana that means to understand one’s past in order to move forward. Ultimately, that is our goal for our son: to provide him with the tools to help him find himself, so he can move forward in the world with confidence. Then he can truly be just Langston.
Tracy Jan is a Washington Post staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @TracyJan.
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